Geneva-Six candidates are vying to become the next head of the World Trade Organization -- an institution which faced mammoth challenges even before the pandemic-driven global economic crisis struck.

The window to enter the race slams shut on Wednesday, in a speeded-up contest to replace the outgoing WTO director-general Roberto Azevedo -- the Brazilian career diplomat who is stepping down one year early at the end of August. The six candidates in the running are from Egypt, Kenya, Mexico, Moldova, Nigeria and South Korea.

The new chief must revive stalled trade talks, lay the ground for the 2021 ministerial conference -- one of the WTO’s major events -- and thaw relations with Washington.

The United States, which has threatened to leave the WTO, has blocked the organisation’s dispute settlement appeal system since December, and wants China moved up from the developing economies category.

In a surprise move in mid-May, Azevedo, 62, announced that he would end his second four-year term early for personal reasons, forcing the Geneva-based WTO’s 164 member states to come up with a successor in just three months instead of the usual nine.

Rather than an election, the procedure for selecting the next WTO boss relies on finding consensus, with candidates gradually being eliminated in turn.

A vote is possible as a measure of last resort, but that scenario has never occurred.

In 1999, when countries could not decide between two runners, both candidates each served a three-year term.

The next incumbent faces a tough task, with the WTO caught in the middle of rising tensions between the United States and China.

“If the process of choosing the next director-general is heavily politicised, that could block things up,” a diplomatic source told AFP.

If a consensus cannot be reached in time, one of the four deputy directors-general will take the reins in September on a caretaker basis.